‘Playboys Spies and Private Eyes’ reviewed

A fitting tribute to the exciting dramas of ITC Television, which straddled the divide between art and commerce…

In the beginning, there was the logo and it was good. The facts are, of course, more complicated than that, but the topic at hand is a set of memories rather than a detailed history and there’s plenty of truth embedded in the initial comment. The ITC logo at the start of a program was – and several decades on remains – a virtual guarantee of something good – or, at the very least, interesting. At a time where “brand” is the most overused term this side of “synergy”, it can be easy to forget how big an impact the ITC brand made on television, not just in the UK but throughout the world.

Though ITC’s offerings encompassed everything from The Adventures of Robin Hood to Space: 1999, they tend to be most identified with the espionage and investigative series. This very durable strand of programming is the focus of the new book Playboys, Spies and Private Eyes. Edited by Alan Hayes and Rick Davy, this anthology offers reflections on many of their best known programs, as well as a couple best described as curiosities. The contributors run the gamut in background from individuals working in TV production to dedicated amateur researchers, but all are united by a fascination with these shows that walked the dotted line between art and commerce.

Like the programs that inspired it, this book is a kind of unpretentious cultural document. The personal stories here reflect not just the eras in which the shows initially aired but also how they’ve been received by viewers both years and oceans apart from those original broadcasts. Because ITC’s guiding force, Sir Lew Grade, was ever conscious of international market – particularly the United States – these programs tended to be sold more widely outside of the UK than most contemporary British series.

Even after their 60s and 70s heyday, being produced on film helped ensure that they looked less dated than other shows of the time and were easier to schedule alongside more current offerings, especially in comparison to stagier BBC productions shot largely on videotape. This points to why these programs remain available to watch – sometimes looking better than ever thanks to DVD distributors like Network – when so many other British series have been lost. The continuing interest meant these shows never fell victim to erasure or incineration due to organizational assumptions about commercial value as even some popular series did and had the chance to exhibit multi-generational appeal.

That last element is a frequent refrain throughout the book – discovery from late-night showings or other repeats, often only paid attention to because a family member mentioned that the writer might enjoy one show or another. This engagement frequently led the writers here not just to watch other ITC series but also to document them. This process of uncovering every bit of information they could was no small task in the pre-Internet era, making their efforts a fitting tribute in itself to these investigation-minded heroes.

Artwork by Shaqui Le Vesconte.

Playboys, Spies and Private Eyes is likewise a fitting tribute. It seems almost unfair to pick out favorites among the chapters here. Some pieces may be more engaging than others, but they’re all inspired by a similar kind of affection. In this vein, David Tulley’s piece on The Champions and Mike Kenwood’s recollections of Department S are highly representative. Robert Morton’s discussion of The Baron and Chris Dale’s candid assessment of The Adventurer also stand out for showing the ways in which Grade’s focus on the American market could impact the content of ITC’s programs, and not always for the better. This shows through in a more measured way in Al Samujh’s chapter on Man In a Suitcase, which gets extra points for referring to quintessentially American method actor Richard Bradford as a “Marmite figure”.

As expected, certain shows dominate the proceedings, particularly The Saint and The Prisoner. The latter arguably looms the largest, with several writers identifying it as the gateway program that led them to other ITC series, including many who discovered Danger Man as a result of Patrick McGoohan’s later show. Commendably, the book successfully acknowledges the outsized impact of those 17 episodes on popular culture without diminishing other programs.

Above all, Playboys, Spies and Private Eyes succeeds in conveying the sense of excitement and delight that so many ITC shows continue to foster. That it does so for the benefit of a worthy cause in the form of the Born Free Foundation is an added bonus. Whether one’s reaction to a given chapter is thorough agreement or an urge to debate, it’s all to good purpose, a reminder of a shared pop-culture history that unites fans far more than it divides.

Playboys, Spies, and Private Eyes – Inspired by ITC; Edited by Alan Hayes and Rick Davy is published by Quoit Media. Cover price £12.99 plus P&P. Paperback, 256 pages, ISBN: 978-1-911537-03-8. Click here to order, depending on your location.

❉ Don Klees has spent many years in the video business. This continues to enrich his life in many ways, chief among them being able to tell people he watches television for a living. An avid consumer of pop – and sometimes not-so-popular – culture,  Don is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

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